The Great and Awful Wilderness
During my summer vacation, I did that thing that rabbis are prone to doing: I attended services at another congregation. In this case, it was with our friends, Beth Jacob, in St. Paul, Minnesota. My family was graciously hosted by one of the community’s rabbis, Rabbi Tamar Grimm and we sat around for Se’udat Shlishit, schmoozing and noshing and enjoying life-nourishing conversation.
Our attention turned to Tisha b’Av. A wise woman attending asked how we can feel mournful when summer is a happy time. It’s true: Tisha b’Av always tends to fall in July or August, when we are thinking of ice cream and BBQ, swimming pools and recreational travel. We enjoy golden evenings and glistening mornings. We feel relaxed and happy to disconnect from the toils that weigh us down otherwise. Why on earth would we want to observe a solemn and mournful fast day?
There is a historical answer, I suspect. I suspect (historians please confirm!) that in the ancient Middle East, most battles were waged in summer. Chariots wouldn’t be bogged down in the mud of seasonal winter rain, and fires – in enemy territory, of course – would spread quickly. It would also make for optimal siege conditions: without rain, one could cut off the water supply of a community quite easily if they did not have an underground well. Our modern notions of summer as relaxation and vacation times are both tied to the experience of the northern hemisphere and perhaps historically recent trends in agriculture and industry.
Summers in ancient Israel would have been scorching hot and perilous. Having grown up in a Mediterranean climate myself, I remember clearly fearing the summer because wildfires would follow in its wake. I am sure many Californians share similar concerns. In fact, the area in Spain where I grew up has been consumed by ever-increasing and more extreme wildfires; even as recently as a few weeks ago. It made my heart ache to see the lush olive groves and mountainsides I know so well scorched black. It would make sense that invading armies would leverage both terrain and climate to their destructive advantage.
So, we observe Tisha b’Av because that is when the military campaigns that destroyed the Temples and dislodged Jewish sovereignty occurred. We are left with this remnant, a relic of a practice, even though the reasons seem less apparent to us.
However, there are still ways to connect to Tisha b’Av, both historically and spiritually. The image of a scorching and scorched earth rings all too true on an ever-heating planet due to climate change. We feel the weariness of the heat in our bones. Fasting in the heat (and only fast if it is medically responsible to do so!) places a burden on the body that we feel keenly in our soul.
There is something to Tisha b’Av that feels like the end of a process, as we have journeyed through the year together. As I was reading the weekly portion, a similar thought struck me. Despite the grandeur of the book of Deuteronomy, its focus on conquest and consolidation, we meet a people who are tired. After 40 years in the wilderness; after trial and tribulation, division and trauma, all they want is to reach the Promised Land and find security and rest. A particular line stood out in Parashat Devarim where Moses recounts their sojourning: ‘We set out from Horeb and travelled the great and terrible wilderness that you saw…’ ‘Va’nisa mechorev vanelech et kol hamidbar hagadol v’hanora…’ (Deut. 1:19) I don’t recall the wilderness every be described so poignantly as ‘great and terrible’. There is an enticing parallel with God, Who also gets described as ‘hagadol v’hanora’, a turn of phrase we have kept in the first blessing of the Amidah. What is it about the wilderness that was so awe-inspiring and terrifying? What was it about the experience of the Israelites? After all, this adjective reveals more about their mental state than the actual reality of the wilderness. This is a people at the end of their rope.
And so are we. The Haftarah today is a beautiful counterpoint to the Parashah. Whereas the Parashah delineates the themes of a nation being built up, exhausted though they are, the Haftarah illustrates a nation being torn down; a foreshadowing of the Book of Lamentations (Eichah) which we will read on Tisha b’Av. Again there a verse struck me, among Isaiah’s chidings of us being ‘children of Sedom’. (Spoiler alert: it really isn’t a compliment!) ‘Every head is ailing and every heart is sick’, the Prophet tells us. ‘Kol rosh lacholi v’chol levav davai.’ (Isaiah 1:5).
Although Biblical authors understood head and heart in a different way than we do today (heart was seen as the seat of wisdom), perhaps it is not a stretch to say that this speaks to the mind-body dichotomy, presenting us with a totality: every aspect of our being is sickened and weakened. Among each of us. It is a description of deep, cumulative, pervasive trauma. A a great and terrible wilderness of the human condition.
So we are left here, under an unforgiving sun, to contemplate both the task and its intention. We are called to build a nation; a nation of justice and mercy. And at the same time, we are brought low by our failings as we endure setbacks and losses. Perhaps the time of Moses, or Isaiah or Yochanan ben Zakkai or Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is not so different from our own. We too are called to hold the polarity of our pain with the mission to march towards justice. Tisha b’Av is known as the Black Fast, but it indelibly calls us to walk bravely towards that other fast, the White Fast, that redemptive fast of Yom Kippur.
There are no easy answers here, just poetic paradoxes that tease us with patterns of meaning beneath mystery and confusion. Perhaps Tisha b’Av is reflective of our mood; as we feel battered by the world. Perhaps Tisha b’Av does the opposite and the catharsis of ritualized mourning and contemplation allows us to buttress ourselves against our despair. Still, among the great and terrifying wilderness of life; of the journeys that each of us make, we know that there is a gleaming horizon; a silver light beckons of home. The High Holidays will be here soon and with them, mercy, justice and redemption in their healing wings.